Thomas Nagel

USA/Serbia

2008 Balzan Prize for Moral Philosophy

INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS NAGEL
www.balzan.org  16 October 2012

The Balzan prize, awarded each year in four different areas of study, requires one-half of the award money to be used for younger researchers, a factor which sets it apart from other prizes. Thomas Nagel, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University chose to do something innovative and very different with his prize monies.  
Nagel set up a four-year research project entitled “Philosophical Aspects of the Global Order” at New York University. The main aim of the research project is to explore the complexity of ethics and politics, but it also supports young researchers in the fields of philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science.
Most of the funds are being used to provide fellowships to enable visiting graduate students from abroad to spend time at New York University, to participate in the philosophy department’s programs and its Institute of Philosophy research activities.  Students also attend the NYU Law School “Colloquium in Legal, Political and Social Philosophy”, conducted by Thomas Nagel and Ronald Dworkin. 
In regard to this  Nagel says:
«I am delighted to learn that my colleague Ronald Dworkin has been awarded the 2012 Balzan Prize in Jurisprudence, and  I look forward to hearing how he will use the research portion of the prize to advance our enlightenment even further!»  
The Colloquium examines scholarly work in progress on the issues of global justice, international human rights, immigration and national boundaries, and the relation between democratic legitimacy and judicial versus legislative supremacy. Students, younger scholars, and senior faculty members, all participate in this program of ongoing discussions. 
Balzan Fellowships are allocated each year to students coming to the Philosophy Department to spend a year as visiting graduate students. Each of the Balzan Fellows takes two graduate seminars per semester for credit in the department, and also participates in the various colloquia and conferences sponsored by the Institute of Philosophy, the Philosophy Department, and the School of Law.

A further portion of the funds support activities of the Institute of Philosophy fostering research on topics of public concern that have an important philosophical dimension, such as “Science and Religion” or “Epistemology and Ethics of Disagreement”. These working groups bring together junior and senior scholars and graduate students over an extended period, with research papers subjected to criticism and discussion.

We spoke with Dr. Nagel recently to discuss how the Balzan Prize monies helped further his research and field?
«I was surprised and honored to learn that I had won this award.  Prizes in philosophy are rare, and I actually didn’t know about the Balzan prize». Speaking about what the prize meant for of his own institution, Nagel said that, «The Balzan prize enabled us to foster development of young researchers in the philosophy department. We are a leading and very active center of research and the prize has allowed us to bring gifted young people into the center from places where opportunities are limited such as Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. These young researchers are brought into contact with the philosophical community in a way that has changed their lives. One student from Romania, one of the first Balzan fellows, came back to New York University to get a Ph.D and is an outstanding research student,» Nagel added.

«Philosophers generally work as individuals. There aren’t the kinds of teams that exist in the sciences,” Nagel noted.  “Nevertheless it is a collective activity because it is important to discuss philosophical ideas as part of a community, even if there are usually no collective products,» he added. Speaking about the collaboration with other fields, Nagel said, «Law and philosophy have been studied together for many years at NYU; they are connected, for example, in discussion of the foundations of individual rights, and of the relation between political legitimacy and the freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and equal protection clauses of the American Constitution. There have also been big changes in the development of ethics and political theory since the 1950s with a concentration on substantive questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Current developments in international justice and the changing relationship between international institutions and sovereign nation states are now calling for the development of new moral and legal standards,» Nagel added.

NYU’s philosophy department is also at the forefront of the study of philosophical questions about the mind and the mind/brain relationship. «We are very active in this developing area of philosophy and some of the Balzan fellows have done their work in this direction,»  Nagel said.  The third area of research in which Balzan fellows have concentrated at NYU is the philosophy of language - another of the department’s strengths.
 
2012-2013 will be the last year of the Graduate Fellowship program, with two full-year fellowships. The research funds have been used exclusively to support graduate students in the middle of their studies, rather than post-doctoral researchers.  As a result, there have been no published results so far. But the opportunities the fellowships offer to students from all over the world to expand their horizons and enrich their intellectual experience have been invaluable, and will certainly bear fruit in the future.
 
Susannah Gold
New York

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